PONTIUS PILATE

Did Jesus stand before Pontius Pilate or did Pilate stand before Jesus? Of course, the Bible states that Jesus stood before Pilate (Matt. 27:11; I Tim. 6:13), and from the perspective of the world, this is what happened. Jesus stood before Pilate and was judged by him. Pilate even tried to reiterate to Jesus the power he thought he had over Him by reminding Him that he had the “power to crucify” or to release Him (John 19:10). But Jesus meekly declared that “Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above” (John 19:11). Pilate unwittingly played an important role in the unfolding scheme of redemption.

The name “Pontius” was an old name among the Samnites in central Italy, and it may be Pilate’s family came from this region. He was from the upper middle class (Equestrian). He became procurator of Judea in 26 A.D. and continued thus till 36 A.D. As Procurator or Governor, he had four main duties. He was responsible for the collection of taxes for the emperor (supervising the local Judaean tax collectors or publicans), he managed the provincial books, he was the supreme judge of the province and he commanded a small army. He was under the Governor of Syria and when he needed military help he could call on him for aid. For the first six years of his administration of Judea, however, the Syrian governor was absent and Pilate was on his own.

Five major historical sources give us information on Pontius Pilate. The first and most trustworthy is the Bible, the second is Josephus, the third is Philo, the fourth is Tacitus and the final source is an inscription in stone called the Pilate Stone. The latter is a moderately sized solid block of inscribed limestone that was discovered in 1961 in Caesarea Maritima. The inscription, though somewhat damaged by time, describes Pilate as the prefect of the province of Judaea, confirming the Biblical account. Tacitus refers to the fact that Christ “suffered the extreme penalty…at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate” (The Annals, 15, 44), not only confirming the historicity of Pilate, but also of Christ.

The references to Pilate in Philo and Josephus are not very kind. Philo, if we can trust his as an unbiased assessment, describes “his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity” (ON THE EMBASSY TO GAIUS 40:XXXV:III:302)  Josephus is far less explicit but does seem to place Pilate in an unfavorable light, as when he describes how Pilate provoked the Jews to riots by using temple treasure for an aqueduct and then beat them down to quell their protests.

The Pilate revealed in the New Testament, however, is much less depraved than he is depicted in the external sources. The scriptures in no way absolve him of the role he played in the crucifixion of Jesus. An event not recorded by either Philo or Josephus is included in the New Testament which suggests an act of great violence on his part (Luke 13:1). But as corrupt and insolent and insulting as he may have been, Pilate seemingly wanted to set Jesus free because he saw no fault in Him (Luke 23:4). It suggests that he maintained some sense of justice. In fact, Jesus stated that those who delivered Him to Pilate had the greater sin (John 19:11).

For example, on the recommendation of the Jewish Sanhedrin, Pilate could have legally acquiesced to their demands and sentenced Jesus to immediate death. Instead, the Record shows that Pilate tried multiple times to spare Jesus from that capital penalty. The Jewish leadership clamored for Jesus’ death and stirred up the people to call for Jesus to be crucified (Luke 23:21). It was only when Pilate’s opposition to Jesus’ death was used against him to suggest Pilate was no longer Caesar’s friend that, Pilate, in fear, relented of his opposition and washed his hands of the whole matter (John 19:12).

Perhaps Pilate’s great sin in the matter of Jesus was weakness. He did not possess the moral courage to stand against the pressure exerted by the Jewish council. His own wife called Jesus a “just man” and implored her husband to have nothing to do with Him (Matt. 27:19). He knew Herod had found no fault in Jesus (Luke 23:13-16). He knew the charges against Jesus were false and that the council’s only motive was envy (Matt. 27:18). Even when he could find no fault in Jesus, he allowed Him to be crucified. Yet, even in this, how much different was he than the apostle Peter who denied the Lord even though he knew Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God (Matt. 16:13-19)?

Peter, who had first hand knowledge of these things, said that while Pilate was “determined” to let Jesus go the “men of Israel . . . desired a murderer to be granted” freedom, meaning Barabbas (Matt. 27:21; Acts 3:13,14). Nevertheless, he doesn’t leave Pilate without culpability. He next quotes the second Psalm which describes the kings and rulers of the earth taking counsel against the Lord and against His anointed and applying this to Pilate, Herod, the Gentiles and the Jews (Acts 4:24-30). We are all guilty before the Lord (Rom. 3:23).

Two thousand years ago Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, governor of Judea, in his judgment hall and received the biased judgement of men. Sometime in our future Pilate, Herod, the Jews and all men will stand before the Lord of heaven and earth in the Day of Judgement and receive the righteous judgement of God (Rev. 20:11-15). We will not be able to wash our hands and declare our innocence but we will need to be washed in the blood of the Lamb (Acts 22:16; Rev. 1:5).

Eric L. Padgett

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